A Balanced View

Published 18 July 2019

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The thorny issue of second and holiday homes has once again come to the fore, following a spoof ‘blue plaque’ which appeared on the wall of the pharmacy in Burnham Market, which closed last month after trading for two centuries.

The stunt has reignited the debate about whether homes which are used for visitors – whether second homeowners or paying guests – would be better used housing the ‘locals’ who struggle to find somewhere affordable to live in their own communities, in large part because house prices have been driven up by the demand from what are generally referred to as ‘incomers’.

It is a compelling argument.  When people can no longer remain in the communities they call home, and are unable to live close to where they work, it is tempting to call for action to be taken.

But the argument is more nuanced than that, and before we condemn everyone who purchases a property for a reason other than to live in it full-time, we need to be careful that we are not calling for the death of the goose that lays the golden egg.

It is easy to forget, for example, that Burnham Market in the 1960s was a run-down village which was dying on its feet.  Much of the local wealth – and with it the employment for local people – was created when the area became popular as a weekend and holiday destination. 

What would Burnham Market look like today if that hadn’t happened?  For sure, housing would be cheaper, but would the local people want to stay somewhere where there was little prospect of a decent job – and without one, would they be able to afford to live there, even if prices were lower?

And would there be the kind of amenities which we all want to see – shops, restaurants, pubs and so on – if the money wasn’t flowing in from outside?  Was the Burnham Market pharmacy a victim of the village becoming a tourist hotspot, or simply of changing retail habits?

This is a debate which is taking place right across north Norfolk, and indeed elsewhere in the county.  Tourism is by far the biggest employer in the county, accounting for as many as a third of all jobs in north Norfolk.  Take it away and you might make housing cheaper, but you would also drastically cut incomes as well.

Ultimately, few of us would be prepared to take the moral high ground and accept a lower offer from a local person when it came to selling our home, rather than taking the best price available, even if that means selling to an ‘incomer’ (a dreadful word anyway, because over the centuries people settling in Norfolk from outside the county have made a major contribution to our prosperity – and I speak as someone born and bred in Norfolk)

What we need to find is a balance.  If we want to sustain the tourism trade which is the county’s lifeline, we must accept that those tourists need somewhere to stay.  We must be prepared to acknowledge that many of the amenities we take for granted are to a large part sustained by visitors.

But at the same time we need to ensure that we are providing the affordable housing which will provide the social and economic glue which will keep our communities together.  That probably means accepting new homes (too many small communities agree there should be more affordable homes, just not in their particular village).

Above all, it means both sides of the debate being prepared to come out of their entrenched positions and meet halfway – something that, on reflection, the whole country could do with just at the moment.

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